Friday, October 30, 2009

J Street comes alive on Washington, DC map


The Israel-Palestine peace process – a top foreign-policy objective of the Obama administration – faces continued challenges after months of intense diplomatic talks engineered by George Mitchell, the U.S. envoy for the Middle East. These negotiations have produced a mere handshake between U.S. President Barack Obama, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, without being able to produce any framework for an ongoing peace process.

Obama's tough rhetoric against Netanyahu backfired, said Ami Ayalon, the former head of the Shin Bet, Israel's secret service, and former commander in chief of the navy after a panel discussion at the J Street conference in Washington, D.C. The initial stalemate was presented by Netanyahu as a victory, which was in reality a mere defense of the status quo, he added. Ayalon also stated that after this first round of diplomacy, Obama started to be viewed as a collaborator with the current Israeli administration, which created some questions in the Arab world regarding the degree to which he can uphold his strong stance against Israeli demands.

Under these circumstances, I asked Jeremy Ben-Ami, the executive director of the J Street movement, to describe his organization to me. "[J Street] is the political voice of American Jews and other Americans who believe that it is in our best interests and as well as that of Israel to end the conflict with the Palestinians and to have a two-state solution and a comprehensive peace process in the Middle East."

J Street, with a history a mere 18 months in the making, attracted thousands of supporters, the support of hundreds of the members of Congress, high-profile attendees and the Obama administration's unequivocal backing last week. The Obama administration has shown its support by sending the National Security Adviser, Ret. General James L. Jones, to represent the President and to speak at the conference. Gen. Jones concluded that "this U.S. administration will participate in J Street's other activities in the future." On the other hand, while J Street hosted many members of Congress, Republicans and Democrats alike, the one person who shied away from the conference was Israel's ambassador to Washington, D.C., Michael Oren. According to the statement that was released by the Israeli embassy, there were "concerns over certain policies of the organization that may impair the interests of Israel."

One would rightly ask why is it that this new movement attracted so much attention and sparked a range of discussion in America and across the globe, while Israel already has a mighty lobby, centered around the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, in Washington, D.C., an organization that has been staunchly and unequivocally defending Israel's policies? What is it that makes J Street so unique to draw thousands of participants, many of whom come from the other states and places as far away as Jerusalem?

I attended most meetings of the conference for two-and-a-half days to receive answers to these questions. I met many ordinary participants as well as religious leaders, rabbis and humanitarian workers from Jerusalem. I met a couple of the participants during the "Jewish Community Town Hall" meeting, after speeches by Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism and Jeremy Ben-Ami. After these speeches, the crowd discussed some of the questions of the ongoing conflict in Gaza and the Israeli-Arab peace process in general. Two participants were from Oxfam International, a confederation of 14 organizations working in more than 70 countries to find permanent solutions to poverty and injustice. One of these participants was John Prideaux-Brune, Oxfam's country director, who has been living in Jerusalem and Gaza for about five years.

John said that Israel still occupies Gaza from the sea, land and air, even if it claims officially it does no longer do so. According to the Geneva Conventions, Israel has to allow humanitarian help to enter Gaza. However, John argues, what is allowed to go into Gaza is incredibly limited. For example, macaroni cannot get in because it is considered a luxury food item. Israel only allows about 100 trucks of food to go in to Gaza a day, as opposed to 600-700 trucks before the Gaza conflict. Cement or any other construction materials are not allowed by the border officials as they could be used to make tunnels. His frustration goes further by talking about the terrible circumstances the Gazans live under; ordinary Jewish-American people also sitting at our table are equally angry and add their own criticisms to his frustrations. Another Jewish-American participant who is equally frustrated by the Israeli government's harsh treatment of the Gazan people was Naftali Kaminski, a doctor, who joined the conference from Pittsburgh.

Therefore, the first reason for J Street's success and wide popularity undoubtedly comes from the grassroots support of ordinary American Jews who are tired of Israel's grinding policies in Gaza and stubborn settlement practices. The grassroots support is, I believe, the most important element for any organization to be effective and apparently J Street has it all. There is another very important reason for J Street's immediate success, which is that it coincided perfectly with a new U.S. administration coming into office. J Street's close relationship with and support of the Obama administration was seen very clearly during the conference and this special relation apparently makes the organization’s mission to fill a gap in American politics even stronger. J Street defends many parallel policies that fit well with the Obama administration's plans, such as the two-state solution and a complete freeze of the settlements. It was also interesting to see that whenever a panelist talked about a two-state solution, criticized Israel for what it did during the last Gaza war or called for ending the occupation, the J Street crowd roared and applauded excitedly.

Even though J Street received heavy flak from AIPAC and other hard-line right-wing Israeli factions in respect to their criticism of Israel's policies, the open-minded discussions and honest debates on the panels were exhilarating and personally lifted my hopes for the peace process. To see a crowd in an inaugural conference describe themselves 'pro-Israel,’ but stand up against the country’s many wrong-headed policies gained my deep respect.

PS. Washington, D.C. marks its streets with letters, and J is missing from the actual map.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Evolution toward one worldwide religion

To what extent are the Abrahamic religions similar? Can a common pattern be found between Judaism, Christianity and Islam? Would such a comparison produce a result? Is it possible to find sufficient pragmatism and tolerance in the scriptures of these religions to create the dawn of a new global social system?
Robert Wright, in his archaic 541-page book "Evolution of God," (Little, Brown and Company, June 2009), brings a fresh and genuine look at evolution of the ideas of "God." The book begins by looking at evidence from hunter and gatherers societies, and argues, that so far, every society from the earliest time has believed in different gods or polytheistic spirits, but that the idea of god has evolved and changed tremendously throughout history.
According to Wright, the idea of God did not have a moral component at the beginning. In other words, gods did not tell people how to live correctly. Instead, people in hunter and gatherer societies in different parts of the world believed that supernatural beings could reveal answers to questions much like how today we depend on science. For example, they tried to understand the way world works, and more specifically find answers for events, such as why catastrophes occurred, or why wars were lost.
And then they tried to find ways of increasing their success and decrease catastrophes, by behaving according to how they thought those natural beings would expect. Thereby these human societies achieved peace of mind by thinking they could predict when and how luck would be on their side by abiding to each god's wills. Those who could predict results of the events were useful, particularly in military matters. Consequently, those soothsayers would receive favorable status in their society according to the number of accurate predictions they made with the help of the gods.
During the first half of the book, Wright writes about changing ideas and practices regarding gods, and how they changed as each society's knowledge of the universe improved. When the first idea of a universal God, "Yahweh," arrives in human history, the idea of religion takes an unprecedented turn. From then on, human history witnesses the evolution of only one god, beginning with the Israelites, which is what we see in the Old Testament. Although, there is no way that Wright’s book can be discussed thoroughly in this column, what I would like to discuss is Wright's predictions for the future of religions, and how he came by these predicts by using evidence from the past.
What Wright emphasizes is that religion has always been a forceful method for establishing different social systems and sustaining a moral framework in order for social systems to expand. Although, social systems can cohere or collapse, coherence depends predominantly on moral progress, Wright argues. With moral progress, people become better because they learn to empathize with other cultural groups. It is this empathy that leads to respect and appreciation for different cultural perspectives, which is an essential tool for expanding social structures caused by imperial pursuits. Wright elaborates that the Hebrew Bible's social salvation, as opposed to Christianity and Islam's individual salvation, is better at holding an entire social system intact. Although, he mentions that Christianity played an important role in maintaining the cohesion of the Roman Empire, and Islam founded many multinational empires as well.
Therefore, according to Wright, religion, in contrast to what the much celebrated new atheist, such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, have been writing about, has actually played a constructive role throughout history, and made it possible for social systems to expand and accommodate newcomers.
And Wright argues, in essence, all the Abrahamic religions have enough evidence in their scriptures and in the examples of their prophets to ignore some of the irreconcilable and controversial verses to focus on the more moderate doctrines or even make some amendments to the current doctrines, if necessary. In his book, Wright dwells extensively on the Koran and the history of its prophet, and argues that it has numerous benevolent verses, just as in the Old and New testaments, as well as belligerent ones. However, he claims that the followers of these three main religions, throughout history, have been tolerant in times of crisis, especially when it comes to self-interest. Therefore, Wright says such pragmatism and tolerance is expected from today's religious leaders.
Wright's 'grim optimism' with respect to today and how the three Abrahamic religions might find coherence, and why such developments can happen is the most important point one can take home. Wright argues, that while the world is getting more interdependent and smaller, people need to identify themselves with others even more, for the sake of the global social system that we are currently entering. Therefore, religions have to revisit their tolerant scriptures and doctrines once more to prepare their followers for such a global social order.
Wright continuously points out a moral direction in history achieved by a moral progress. Moral progress is a compromising process that gives each player welfare, and is not a zero-sum game. This process was what made moral progress possible; and in each circumstance people were much more inclined to favor it. Therefore, moral progress, in essence, depends on self-interest or gain, with a kind of a business class morality, which will increase the welfare of all, Wright argues.
When observing the world today Wright’s argument is plausible because religious groups are more successful and expanding at a faster rate. Yes, it is the groups and leaders that preach tolerance and show willingness to compromise, that become powerful and popular. Another point that comes across in the book, from a purely materialistic point of view, is finding enough evidence for the author to believe that there could be a transcendental being or purpose, of which the cultural evolution of human history reveals, and which can subsequently validate some of the theological thinking that has survived today. This validation may help millions of non-believers understand believers better, enabling them to make sense of their, so-called “meaningless” faith, in light of this materialistic-moral progress interpretation. This understanding can lead to even more common ground, thereby amplifying more tolerance.
Wright believes that we live in yet another historic time in terms of religious history and indeed, he makes many exceptional and forceful arguments for it.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Is the Turkish opposition in peril?


I have been writing for the Hürriyet Daily News for almost a year, and have heavily criticized a wide variety of the policies of the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, many times. I was raised, however, in an environment that was ideologically driven by Islam, the same roots as the AKP, so I now find it thrilling to watch the victories of these conservative Muslims from a distance.

And from this long distance, I have tried to understand what it must feel like to succeed in almost every development in today's Turkey after so many decades of feeling inferior. What I witness is an equally interesting parade. The conservative and religious segments of Turkey are flourishing at an ever-faster rate. This change, however, has not happened over night; on the contrary, it has taken place over years of meticulously prepared stages. The religious and conservative population of Turkey has worked hard and got richer. They have studied ardently, excelled in learning foreign languages and gained familiarity with the outside world, becoming much better accustomed to it than secular Turks. The conservatives, along with some pro-Islamic movements, adapted themselves to the times, polished their arguments and continued walking on a difficult path. Though they occasionally compromised on issues – and perhaps even lost some battles – they eventually came back to their original issues when they deemed the time appropriate.

Conservative Muslims in Turkey became well versed in Western pragmatism by excelling in their knowledge of the international arena, receiving every kind of degree in the West and establishing their own academic institutions in both there and here. They educated their own strategists, something Turkey has rarely seen. Rather than drafting policies with only today’s concerns in mind – as was the earlier custom – or simply being reactive in their foreign policy decisions, these strategists, whether one likes it or not, have drafted plans for the long term future because they now understand the region and the world better than before.

And today's administration in Turkey has been trying to bring some kind of compromise to issues that have dragged on for decades. For example, the Kurdish people, co-founders of the Republic, might now become a partner in the country again. This exciting new adventure might be to the advantage of Turkey. And it is a natural course as well because, when one looks at it closely, the love and the inseparable bonds between the two nations are just too powerful to be broken. This inseparability is, in essence, about to end terrorism in Turkey; the rest is mere politics. The present administration, despite its mistakes and shortcomings, is doing the right thing with this reconciliation process, regardless of whether it is with international help or because of the changing dynamics in Iraq.

Turkey has also been gaining the status of a regional power. The Arab world has started to appreciate our country. In this day and age, trade, rather than ideology, drives much of the foreign agenda. In many cases in fact, pragmatism is the driving force, not the other way around. No country conquers any other anymore, as hard power has proven fatal to the countries that resorted to that option in recent history. Instead, the power of the brain and of science has circumvented most of the problems between peoples and promises a better life. Even though ideologies appear to be on the rise in some parts of the world, in countries like Turkey, people who once had a taste of a better quality of life tend to make the most of this pragmatism and look for ways to continue on this road.

Could there be a dangerous turn of events along the way? Could this adventure be hijacked by the more extreme elements of some movement? Quite possibly. However, what we see today is a new generation of rich conservatives that are not the kind of people who want sharia law to be implemented in place of secularism.

In brief, whether it is the Armenian issue, or close relations with Syria, improving the lot of Kurdish people or supporting the unification process of Cyprus, it seems that the ruling party in Turkey is reading the region's affairs much better than the opposition parties.

What does this equation tell us? At present, there is no viable opposition party in today's Turkey that can challenge the AKP's foreign policies. Today the opposition in Turkey is lagging behind in terms of defending basic freedoms and understanding modern democracy. They have no ability to give lessons on the subject of a modern secular regime that treats its citizens equally and protects different societal segments from oppression by others. Turkey needs new and open-minded leaders who can elaborate ideas of social justice for its people.

Turkey needs an opposition party with at least a couple of experts in international foreign policy, so that every once in a while, they can show up in the capital of the United States, the center of world politics, and explain their stance on any given policy conflict. Sadly, the opposition argues that it does not need the backing of a foreign country; instead, just as in Ottoman times, it turns its back and says "istemezük/we don't want it" for almost every critical issue facing Turkey. As such, the conservative right is much better equipped to address these issues.

While freedom of the press is under enormous scrutiny – Reporters Without Borders, or RSF, ranks Turkey 122 out of 173 countries on this index and there are serious concerns about rising corruption – there is no opposition party in Turkey that has the credibility or the energy to discuss these issues with any manner of eloquence.

This said, I hope that pragmatism will prevail, and, based on technological innovations and the Internet, I hope too that Turkey's youngsters will have open hearts and minds and be able to meet their peers from around the globe with tolerance and compromise. They will learn that the good life is about living happily and enjoying things as much as one can while respecting others.

The evidence that this will happen in Turkey is "the moral direction in history," to quote U.S. author Robert Wright. This direction will once more prevail, and history will once more carry "human consciousness toward moral enlightenment, however slowly and fitfully." And for now, the best path toward such a future is the present administration, rather than the opposition. We will know when we find a viable alternative.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Win-win protocol (II)   

    Ilhan Tanir/Oguzhan Guler


Russia's unexpected return to international power strongly displayed itself once more during the latest protocol discussions. Russia's unwavering role in urging the Armenian side to ink the protocols in Zurich, which is being widely reported in the Armenian and Russian press at present, confirmed its heavyweight status in the region and reaffirmed the Kremlin's decisive support for the restoration of relations between Armenia and Turkey.

For those who follow the international affairs of the region closely, it is unusual to see the unequivocal support all powers, the United States, Russia and the European Union, have given to the matter. However, this is the situation we presently face and this full support must be taken as great news in terms of a more stable and peaceful future for the southern Caucasus. One could point to many reasons as to why Russia has both been enjoying better relations with Turkey and supported the protocols; we, however, would like to emphasize one argument that failed to garner much attention – Turkey's position during the war last August between Georgia and Russia. During the war, Turkey utilized a balanced policy and showed a clear unwillingness to take an anti-Russian position along with the Western alliance. This was a turning point that brought Russia and Turkey closer than ever before.
During the conflict, Turkey denied passage to two U.S. ships through the Turkish Straits into the Black Sea, arguing that the ships violated the Montreux Convention which governs the traffic of military ships to the Black Sea. According to the convention, the tonnages of both of the two US ships well exceeded the limits allowed; as such, they were ineligible for passage.

Turkey, showing a full commitment to the Montreux Convention, received a warm response from the Kremlin. In our opinion, in addition to the increasingly strong trade relationship between the two countries that has made Russia Turkey’s biggest trade partner, a strategic, eye-to-eye understanding has been further solidified. This new partnership was consistently lauded during the Russian and Turkish leaders' numerous meetings both at the Kremlin and Ankara.

Still, even in the energy context, Russia sees the protocol results as a win-win situation, since such a multi-billion dollar and strategically important project like Nabucco will now have a bigger chance of passing through Armenia rather than Georgia, a country which the Russians still think should be punished further. And for that to happen, Armenia’s only chance to be part of the project is to have improved relations with Turkey.

It must be noted that Russia is not only popular in Yerevan, but also in Baku (it struck an important gas deal recently) and even in Kiev, where elections are scheduled for Jan. 17, 2010. The two main candidates, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and Victor Yanukovych, are both campaigning on a platform of building better relations with Russia in stark contrast to the last elections in 2004. The Ukrainian media have already ruled out the possibility of a second term for President Victor Yushchenko, the leader of the Orange Revolution. According to a poll conducted by the Ukraine Public Opinion Foundation, 26.8 percent of voters are ready to cast their votes in favor of Viktor Yanukovych, who was considered Russia's candidate during the last elections, against the current President Yushchenko's mere 2.2 percent poll rating.

From the American perspective, the protocol also promises a sunny future. According to Morton Abromowitz, the former U.S. ambassador to Turkey and a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, restored relations between Armenia and Turkey was one of the two most important items on U.S. President Barack Obama's agenda when he visited Turkey in April. As such, the current developments should be seen as a great victory for America as well. America now sees benefits from a more stabilized region and Armenia, freed from the status of solely being Russia’s pawn, becomes a viable candidate to be part of an alternative energy route for the allies in Europe.

Obama will also have a great excuse to defuse the demands of the Armenian diaspora who want the American Congress to pass a resolution on the 1915 events in the coming year by highlighting the progressing relations between Armenia and Turkey. While the 2010 mid-term elections already loom for America, Obama does not wish to see another uproar by the strong and boisterous Armenian constituency in addition to many domestic problems.

On the other hand, in Azerbaijan, it seems that it all depends on the possible progress of the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute. For now, Azerbaijan’s leader İlham Aliyev does not see any reason to hide his skepticism; he is currently getting cozy with Russia by emphasizing the favorable transit prices Gazprom pays to Azerbaijan in contrast to the thriftiness of the Turkish brothers. This is the most worrisome piece of the equation, but for this very reason, it becomes a great incentive for Westerners to work harder to solve the dispute; otherwise, the only official gas source for the Nabucco line even becomes doubtful.

The biggest obstacle to the normalization of the relationship between Turkey and Armenia comes from the opposition parties in Armenia and from the diaspora. Two of Armenia’s leading opposition parties, the Dashnaktsutyun, or the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, and the Heritage Party, opposed the signing of the protocols and campaigned against it fiercely. President Serge Sarkisian visited Armenian diaspora communities throughout the world to gain their support, but was nevertheless greeted with protests. For the Armenian diaspora, it seems that the Armenians do not gain much by opening the borders, but lose a lot by opening a debate over the tragic events of 1915, which is an unforgivable betrayal. We feel it is inappropriate to take a stance against theirs because of the sensible nature of the subject alongside the arguments we have presented that would point to Armenia's future generations living a better life in a more prosperous country.

And the Turkish opposition? The National Movement Party, or MHP, and the Republican People's Party, or CHP, have opposed the protocols. It is very hard to understand and argue for or against their stance: It seems they have, unsurprisingly, not been able to elaborate their position eloquently as to why they would be against the protocols other than by showing their usual chauvinistic drama. And this is a sad fact for Turkey's opposition.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Win win protocol (I)
    İlhan Tanır/Oguzhan Güler

The much discussed protocol which foresees the normalization of the relationships between the Republic of Armenia and Turkey was signed in Zurich, Switzerland, last weekend.

The foreign ministers of the two countries, in the presence of the Minsk Group foreign ministers, were able to overcome the last minute 'ditch', which delayed the signing ceremony for hours. Consequently, this historic protocol which showed the long-term thinking ability of both sides, instead of yielding to an easy but meaningless pandering of short-term popular sentiments, prompted wide-range discussions within and without the region.

In Washington, DC, I recently had a chance to listen to the three former American ambassadors to Turkey talking about a range of issues related to Turkey. All three Ross Wilson, Marc Grossman and Morton Abramowitz, who sat for a series of interviews for "Studyo Washington", a daily news program on the Washington agenda which broadcasts from America's capital to Turkey for TRT Turk, and who collectively praised the new protocol and argued in various ways how important this protocol was as a way forward to solve complex issues between Turkey and Armenia, and also to prepare a productive terrain for geopolitical concert and regional stability.

The soccer diplomacy failed to carry either national soccer team to the World Cup finals, but was able to fortify a groundwork of diplomatic talks and finally to produce a protocol which promises mutual benefits in light of shared interests. And this makes observers and diplomats alike more hopeful for the ratification of the protocol, and subsequently for better prospective for strategic long-term stability. What has changed, and how have the two sides arrived here?

When one considers the starting point of this protocol as well as the hopes in the future for the restored relationships, the role of Justice and Development Party, or AKP, seems to have been the most important from the beginning. New Turkish foreign policies, such as disentangling historic conflicts with neighboring countries, coincided perfectly with President Obama’s coming into the office. US, exhausted in the region, became more open to such regional partnerships. Turkey's increased presence in regional strategic partnerships showed its self-confidence and therefore helped various parties to believe in Turkey's ability to take on such an historically difficult episode to work towards a peaceful reconciliation. Of course, there were also other variables to urge the Turkish officials to hasten the road map to better relations with Armenia. One obvious reason could have been Obama' s solid campaign promise to support a Congressional resolution that would recognize as genocide the tragic events of 1915. However, that would be immature to assess this development only and not taking into account Turkey's latest pro-active foreign policies in the region.

For Turkey, normalization of the relationship with Armenia is very important for a couple of major reasons: One is to ease the historic tensions by setting up commitees to look at the disputes, including the tragic events of World War I. It is known that the Armenian diaspora, which has a loud voice in various European capitals as well as in America, had became the biggest headache for the Turkish government over the last three decades along with the Cyprus issue. And the continuing assault on Turkey in the world gave Turkey a battered image. Whether or not the Armenian diaspora will be quieter is not known; however, setting up such a commitee to look into the troubling era will ease the jitters. The second is the possible progress on the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute, an enclave in Azerbaijan, through this bigger peace context. Finally, better relations with Armenia, and opening up the last closed border in the region is especially important for Turkey's newly gained image of being a good neighbor.

Armenia, economically one of the least developed countries in the former Soviet sphere, will benefit the most from the improved relations with Turkey. Reopening the borders will undoubtedly bring prosperity to the country with increased trade, and also a bigger chance for joining various regional energy and transport projects, which at the end will end up by further stimulating its economy. According to Vardan Ayvazyan, the head of the Armenian Parliamentary Committee on Economic Issues, reopening the border with Turkey will increase Armenia’s exports by 38% and its GDP will register a 3% growth. In the past, Armenia was bypassed in the multi-billion historical energy project, Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, as a result of Turkish and Azerbaijani opposition, despite the fact that the shortest possible route was through Armenia and not Georgia. This pipeline route still looks like a scar over Armenia, and it still lingers as one of the biggest disappointments in memory. Now, at the dawn of another historic, as well as richer energy project, Nabucco, the Armenian government officials, in almost every possible occasion, clearly state their willingness to enter partnerships. Hopefully, the normalization of the relations and consequently solving the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute, will lead to such prosperous future.

Turkey, as is well-known, closed its borders with Armenia in 1993 to protest the illegal occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh and seven districts of Azerbaijan amounting to about a fifth of the Azerbaijani land. It should be known that it is not only Azerbaijan and Turkey, but also the United Nations, took the a similar stance in viewing the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and has adopted the resolution #822 and followed it by three others: #853, #874 and #884, reaffirming the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Republic of Azerbaijan. Turkey, as well as the international community, now wish that Armenia will comply with the UN resolutions. Although it is not an official pre-condition for normalization of the relations, one would predict that without progress on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, it seems that there is little chance for the Turkish parliament to ratify the protocol. Therefore, not being able to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh problem poses a real danger of getting the sides back to square one, after long months and even years of hard earned diplomatic gains and goodwill.

Next: Protocol from Russia and US perspective as well as the wider region. And where the Turkish and Armenian opposition stand.

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Nobel Peace Prize clash

U.S. President Barack Obama's unexpected Nobel Peace Prize victory sparked a wide range of debates around the world. Less than three years ago, Obama was almost completely unknown, even in America; now, after reaching the helm of the world’s superpower and winning the peace prize, he has probably become the most recognizable man in the world. With the latest trophy, Obama continues his life journey that has inspired admiration and faith in him around the world, even though he is still relatively young. It remains to be seen what other events he will write into the history books.
Since the candidate list for the Nobel Peace Prize has not been revealed for the last 50 years, nobody was even sure Obama would be one of the possible candidates for the prize, given that the deadline for the prize was only a few days after his inauguration. And since he has been president for only almost 9 months, and none of his peace initiatives have been realized, there was not even any speculation that his victory could be possible. Because of this, none of his die-hard supporters could have even seen the victory coming.
Just one week after the bitter disappointment he experienced in Copenhagen when his hometown Chicago failed to win the rights to host the 2016 Olympics, he received a tremendous gift from another European city, Oslo, sparking joy in Washington. It was evident how shocking the news was, particularly due to how unprepared the American newspapers were early on Friday. For a few hours that morning, there was no meaningful explanation as to how Obama could have received the prize.
This time, apparently, a person was to receive the enormous prize not because of what he did, but because of what he might be able to do. In past years, the peace prize was received mostly by people who had devoted their lifetime to stopping conflicts through years of painstaking hardships, living in exile, being tortured in jails or staying in isolation. Obama's seemingly sudden victory has puzzled the majority, including Obama himself, who humbly confessed that he thought he didn’t deserve it. All in all, Obama is now tagged with a historic mark elevating him to the level of Mother Theresa, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Obama, certainly, with his reaching-out mode and free-spoken fashion, addressing to the Muslim world, or the African continent, from Russians to Turks, Catholics to gays, lesbians and bisexuals, has indeed changed the climate substantially. Obama's difference has been especially felt around the globe, with becoming a world leader after a figure who was one of the most detested figures in the world. The timing of the prize was also perfect for Obama, as he has been hurdling to make a decision over the fundamental assumptions for the Afghanistan war under enormous pressure. Obama, in the top priority foreign agenda, the Arab/Israel front, has not been able to make a breakthrough and in parallel, in his top domestic policy, health care reform, has hit a bumpy road, even though the latest developments show sign of success. Overall, after almost 10 months into the presidency, Obama's prophecy, amid not having tangible success at any front, started to hit rough times, and like every other prophecy in the past, subsequently has started to come under tough questioning to test his vision's reality and authenticity.
One of the best analyses I heard regarding the victory was from Dr. Cornel West. Dr. West, a Princeton professor and an African-American scholar, pointed out that this prize would put enormous pressure on Obama – who has now been elevated to the level of Mandela – in addition to having to make radical decisions to intervene in different disputes and quarrels. According to his current political guru David Axelrod's account from the election campaign Obama already tends to identify too much with the sides in a given conflict and will now have extra pressure with the peace prize victory hanging over him as he tries to make difficult decisions.
Critics of the prize have many sound arguments. Obama presides over a country that is ensconced in two wars, and threatens to open a third one. As one of history’s most notable Nobel Peace Prize winners, Obama steers a country that possesses over a thousand military installations around the globe and also acts as the commander in chief of the mightiest army the world has ever seen. Therefore, the biggest question remains: How might this prize affect the rest (three or seven years) of his presidency?
Most of the conservatives in America are not happy with the news of the Nobel success. This time, the opposition's arguments do not come merely from the political differences, but are based on more solid claims. Many see this prize as a tool that might restrict Obama's future decisions in respect to America's own interests. Consequently, critics say, the peace prize pressure might undermine the spirit of American exceptionalism; many of the policies derive from this spirit that tend to come across as American arrogance to many other countries in the world. With the peace prize, however, these conservative critics feel Obama might feel even more pressure to base foreign policy decisions even more so on consensus policies, meaning that America might lose some of the tools that has made it successful until now.
The five-member Nobel Peace Prize committee, all of whom are appointed by a purely political body of the Norwegian Parliament, had an evidently political motive in giving the victory to Obama – that is, they wish to see more of a person that they have so far come to appreciate. Having finally met a president they have yearned to see for years, Europeans wanted to show their belligerence against the new opposition against Obama that has started to emerge around the world. Thus Europe, having finally found its president, did not want him alone to veer into the wilderness in the months ahead of him.
The peace prize has become openly political and more debatable with its latest recipient. The result is a reflection of a worldwide clash of ideologies. On the one hand, Obama's supporters want to believe in their oracle's vision, while, on the other, there are those who accuse him of being unrealistic, naive or a fake. The war has not finished. However, it surely will pressure its oracle even more while steering world affairs from this point forward. In short, this prize has made Obama's life harder, and probably will drive his opposition even wilder.

Friday, October 09, 2009

All the President's generals

One would think the military could only publicly influence the policy-making process in the countries in which democracy is not mature enough. This given proposition would go on to argue that in America and other Western countries, the military leadership can only champion their views to the civil leadership behind closed doors. Amid the latest rift between the civil and the military leadership of America, this assumption has been proven to be still an open-ended discussion.
What seems to be unfolding is that a country, which has the oldest constitutional democracy in the world where civil leadership has the final say over all matters, still grapples dramatically when it comes to deciding over affairs that are closely tied to its security deeds. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander in Afghanistan, in this context, publicly came against the current mind-changing tendency that is going on in the White House over the fate of the war in Afghanistan.
With this latest row, the division that goes deep among the fellow Americans and the two big parties of American politics, now spills over to another platform. This rift is very significant by any measure; however, it is hard to tell whether it is necessarily bad for America's overall policy-making fabric. At the end of the day, everybody seems to recognize the civil leadership's authority. Therefore, the rest of the clash is to be factored into the final discussions before making a weighty deliverance. And this measured understanding of the discussion makes the real difference between a western democracy and the others.
Two weeks ago on Monday, close followers of Washington, D.C. affairs woke up sensing that something important had occurred. While opening up one of their daily bibles, the Washington Post, they saw the headline, and the leaked news, which supposedly was a “secret” report for the president’s eyes only on the assessments to win the Afghanistan war. Instead, the secret report was presented to all, with little censure. Whether the intention was to box Obama, or was it an innocent leak by a soldier or a civilian, who may have thought that this report could not be kept secret any longer for America's own security, is not known. What is certain is the leak was a great warning and a sign of a crack in the thinking between the two powerhouses on a life and death issue.
Even if the leaked report, written by McChrystal, was not supported wholeheartedly by the CENTCOM commander and the Iraq war's surge hero Gen. David Petraeus and, by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, it still would have been an important opposition, but more of a one-man style dissidence. However, with the highest generals' endorsement of the report and of subsequently more troops, the military defiance against a possible shift over the Afghan war strategy became a huge issue, which has limited the White House's hand to extremely to fewer options.
There are many aspects of this clash of opinion that one can dwell upon while analyzing it. The most important one is the one related to the countries, which wish to take their own lessons from this unfolding dispute, is to what extent and when and should the military leadership go public to defend their own views. The question is what the fragile balance between the military and civilian authorities should be. While the civilian authorities in Washington, D.C., such as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates; former four star Marine Corps general and the current national security adviser for the White House, James L. Jones; and many other politicians also publicly revealed their dislike over the generals; open engagement of ideas, we must remember that the previous generals who were responsible in carrying out the Afghan and Iraq Wars, also were accused of being quiet and not showing enough backbone to the civil authorities at that time.
For the generals, those who carry the responsibility of hundreds of thousands of troops' lives on their shoulders and those who have been trained to do just that for all their lives, to speak against a policy that they deem erroneous, should be within the job description already, according to many experts.
To others, urging or cornering the commander in chief to take a certain course, limiting the civil leadership's decision-making authority, is a serious lapse. According to this school, the military leadership must confine themselves before pushing a certain strategy onto decision makers. After all, history fettered the inaccurate assessments of the military leadership during the Bay of Pigs or the Vietnam War. Moreover, the clouded assessments of the generals, after the immediate years of the Iraq war, still linger in recent memory.
There are many more particulars that one can further argue which side is taking the wrong approach in this very specific, text-book like clash. It is true that Obama, by cheering up the Afghan war as a “good war” for years, cannot just change his mind, when he is faced with increasing casualties, and abandon a strategy that he himself embraced passionately, merely a few weeks ago.
Two final lessons must be derived out of this American case. One is, countries like Turkey, should study this free lesson, and work out their own homework, with respect to civilian and military authorities' range of maneuvers. Taking up such matter, before the next conflict looms in our own country, certainly will help to navigate better, since the discussion will be on theories, but can well be applied as guidance in such time. With not taking the necessary caution in advance, democratically deficient countries tend to go under severe crises, in clashes such as this.
The second is, the civilian leadership, lacking the necessary expertise over military affairs, even when including such experts in their decision-making mechanism, will still have to think through what they are getting into over given a conflict. Once an administration gives the green light to its military forces for progress further, it is very hard to make a U-turn, even if the arguments for a U-turn may sometimes be very sound. Such a U-turn also is always seems to be a disrespect to those families who have lost their sons and daughters in the conflict.
Therefore, the leadership demands not only pragmatism, which seems to be plenty within the current White House, but also long-term strategic thinking as well, as David Ignatius recently argued.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Iran looms larger on Turkey (II)


Turkey, in terms of dealing with Iran, is one of the most unpredictable countries. Dr. Ahmet Davutoğlu, Turkey's foreign minister, and the architect of foreign policy for almost a decade now, also steers the Iran policy. Dr. Davutoğlu's intense lobbying for years toward a mediator role between Iran and the West has not been realized so far, amid not being given a chance to host the current on-going talks, which are being held in Geneva, instead of Istanbul.

We certainly should overcome this disappointment and try to analyze the latest developments around the Iranian nuclear program from Turkey's perspective, and luckily, we do have some recent concrete evidence to do so. It is Erdoğan's latest speech at the U.N. General Assembly. In his remarks, Erdoğan, while the discussion about the Iranian nuclear program has been buzzing in New York, chose to address mainly critiquing Israel's unjust war in Gaza, a war that happened almost a year ago but the effects of it still continue. I do think highly of Erdoğan's passionate plead for justice and pointing out the Gazans' poor living conditions, however, I do not understand why Erdogan has not added also the Uighur Turks' drama in China in recent months or great atrocities committed in Darfur as well, while he was on the subject.

Dr. Ibrahim Kalin, the top foreign policy adviser of Erdoğan, elaborated his boss' U.N. speech in his Oct. 3 weekly column in daily Sabah. In this column, Mr. Kalin mainly discussed the Goldstone Report, a report that is the U.N. Fact-Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict mandated by the U.N. Human Rights Council and written by Richard Goldstone, an Israel-loving Jewish judge. This report determined that both Israel and Hamas had committed serious violations of the laws of war during the 22-day conflict in December and January, some amounting to war crimes and possible crimes against humanity. Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself publicly appealed to international leaders to reject the report as it accused heavily Israel's disproportionate assault in Gaza.

Turkey's statements over Israel are important while we discuss the Iranian nuclear program because the country that especially feels existential threat by the possibility of Iranian nuclear bomb is Israel. We must agree that if there was no Israel push against the Iranian nuclear program, there wouldn't be such an intense pressure from America either. Like Pakistan, Iran also would have had its own nuclear bomb, without getting into this much trouble.

On the other hand, while Erdoğan was bluntly addressing Israel's war crimes at the U.N. podium and devoted an important portion of his speech to beat Israel, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu also gave a sparking and passionate speech against the countries that treat Iran softly: "Have those countries who did not abandon the U.N. Assembly when Ahmedinejad was talking (a day before) no shame?" Netanyahu asked and targeted therefore also Turkey, as one of those countries who didn't empty the room, during Ahmedinejad's speech.

In this case, an old Turkey, as a traditional American and Israel ally, would have been lined up behind these two countries against Iran. However, with the recent foreign policy orientation, thanks to Davutoğlu, Turkey has closed its ranks with Iran in recent years and the trade between two countries exceeded $11 billion from only $2 billion at the beginning of the decade. Turkey's energy dependence on Iran, as well as Russia, and Erdoğan's strong personal relations with Ahmedinejad and Putin also changed Turkey's classic alliance equation dramatically.

Turkey has been able to play an independent role in between the two worlds so far, however, one would certainly predict that this getting along with the two sides business, at some point, will come to an end. Turkey, since 2005-2006, amid lessening appetite for European Union reforms, and fastening relations with rogue regimes, has been creating many question marks amid Obama's hardened rhetoric against Iran, and possible vote to sanction Iran at the U.N. Security Council in the future. Even people like me, who appreciate the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, on many fronts as a much better alternative than the other opposition parties, have doubts over such a moment of truth.

Yes, the Iran episode looms large over many countries, but it does so much larger on Turkey. The policymakers and intellectuals, who tend to calculate the afterwards of the events, come to the conclusion that there is neither a viable military option available for Iran nor crippling sanctions. Iran's quest to nuclear power seems to be at an unstoppable stage, and many observers see nothing but a containment period looming over the relations with Iran.

While we are entering a possible period of deterrence, in which the West and the United States will try to isolate Iran as much as possible with the new Arab countries in the ranks, and work further to weaken the current Islamic regime with various ways as well as supporting the opposition in Iran, Turkey will not be able to maintain its close relationship ties with both sides, as was the case in recent years.

This looming containment period is expected to start sometime next year, if the current on-going talks in Geneva fail, as many predict. In light of the recent developments in New York, it has shown that Turkey has had a hard time convincing Iranians or the Western alliances about its trustworthiness when it comes to talking the vital issues. As one source who followed the U.N. and G-20 week in New York closely told me, Erdoğan learned about Iran's second secret uranium enrichment center of Qom with the rest of the world, meaning from television, when Obama, along with French and British leaders told the world. Therefore, it proved once more that Turkish officials were neither notified about the developments of this newly unearthed uranium facility by Iran, a country that hosts Turkish high officials very frequently, nor Turkey's biggest ally America, which learned about the nuclear facility officially through the International Atomic Energy Agency few days ago, but apparently they knew about it for months before.

In the coming times, amid being excluded from both sides, Turkey will have to choose to cooperate with one side. While Iran becoming an international castoff, and its current regime becoming a dictatorship, Turkey will have no other option but to join the international community. Even if Turkey currently seems unpredictable, and has a considerable dependence on Iran for energy and rising trade volume, Turkey's foreign policymakers, at some point, have to calculate their games according to the new power that will come to the helm of Iran, sooner or later.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Iran looms large (I)


And the Iran showdown begins at last. It has been months that the interested parties, which is many, have been looking forward for this episode to set in.

Just a decade ago, America most definitely would have been the absolute dominator in such an impasse. At that time, America's ratings were shooting high off the chart, its economy was in its golden years, its military power was relentless, and its president, Bill Clinton, though troubled with the Lewinsky scandal at home, nevertheless was mostly adored by the rest of the world.

Around that time, America's moral credibility was also pretty high even within the Muslim world, thanks to bombing the Serbs, a non-Muslim nation, in Kosovo. America was able to influence regions and countries to solve small and big brawls as it wished. Iran, on the other hand, was just another rogue regime, nothing much less or more. After only less then a decade, today America has positioned itself badly in just about every conflict around the world. Various discords only work further toward eroding America's hard and soft power and moral credibility. In that respect, the result of America's general election last November, which brought to the helm a young and different leader, was the best result in retrospect, since it brought a fresh, likeable star presence to the top of the U.S. government and an attractive face to the world.

All the same, in these days, the weather of Washington is very bleak in many fronts at the same time. For example, the policy makers are debating endlessly what to do in Afghanistan. President Obama suddenly began to have second thoughts over his 'good war', the war for which only a few months ago he sent tens of thousands of troops to implement a new strategy. Instead he is now seriously thinking to reduce dramatically the US forces in the same theater. He did not even wish to see his commander's report on the war for a while, for he was contemplating a new strategy. Only when the military leaked the whole report to Bob Woodward, the favorite son of the American military, was he convinced to gather his top policy advisors to discuss it. Otherwise, according to the one good source in Washington, Obama was leaning to postpone the decision until the debates over the health care reform were over.

On the Arab-Israeli peace process front, Obama was supposed to not agree over anything short of a complete freeze of the Jewish settlements. Meaning all illegal settlements, including those in East Jerusalem, which, according to The Economist, are likely to become parts of Israel under a peace treaty, in return for land swaps as compensation. He went further to prove himself and adduced the settlements as preconditions for the peace process, which even the Palestinians were not much in the mood for in the past. Therefore, as The Economist argues, Obama tried to impose conditions that were practically impossible. The question is whether the advice he is receiving is terrible or whether he has a bit too much confidence in himself. At any rate, Obama's Palestine-Arab peace process drama's first curtain closes with great despair and loss. And he misses the chance of utilizing the gigantic support from the Muslim world, while it lasts.

And Iran. The mother of all conflicts. The Obama administration has not even had a chance to make a mistake on this front because Iranian diplomacy is just too perfect to give him such an opportunity. The only case that the Iranian regime seems not to have calculated was the elections and the tragic events that ensued thereafter. The Islamic regime was so sure that the elections were going to go smoothly that they even invited the foreign press to show off. Fortunately, the Iranian people surprised them.

The latest news shows that China will not go along with the severe sanctions on Iran if the ongoing talks fail, as America would have hoped. It becomes clearer that the Communist regime of Beijing has to quench the oil thirst that arises from of its growth, as many argue. As the second largest oil supplier of China, Iran also gives away billions of energy contracts on a golden tray to Chinese state energy companies. And the Chinese regime is just happy to get the whole Iranian pie for themselves and thanks Westerners for kindly staying away.

On the other hand, America, in reality, does not have the option for a military operation in Iran, and neither can it allow an Israeli attack. The U.S., as an occupier of two Muslim countries at the same time, does not have the stomach to attack yet another one. Obama, as a Democratic president who is in the White House to clean up his predecessor's mess, cannot start another war. Obama is in the White House to finish those two other inherited wars in the first place. Even if he wants to, the tarnished American military force and the gigantic budget deficit will not allow him, period.

Obama has had a dreadful first chapter of his presidency within and outside his country. The worst part is that he has not even shown his decision-making ability much. The first nine months of his presidency were supposed to be a honeymoon period to make a couple of good breakthroughs amid boundless support from the world.

To break this vicious circle of nine months, Obama has to get the Iranian conundrum right this time. That is the reason the talks in Geneva with Iran, since military operations impossible and sanctions are meaningless, seem to be the only options. America, having no other alternative but pray and support Iranian protesters to make further damage, will be the big loser if nothing comes out of these talks. So far, the news came out of the Geneva talks sounds too good to be true. I wonder what kind of surprise the Iranians have in store for the rest around this time.

Let's be realistic: We are in 2009, and America is not what it was just a decade ago. It lost much power, hence it has no other option but to go forward grudgingly with the talks. It seems the only hope we have that the Iranians will go along with the talks and comply with the Westerners' demands. But why, I must ask, should Iran give up on its decades-long nuclear ambition this time, especially when it seems the possibility is just within reach, and the adversary is in despair?

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